Farm Politics as Presidential Politics
Air Date: Week of June 16, 1995
Host Steve Curwood speaks with Ken Cook of Environmental Working Group. Cook believes the farm bill perspective of 1933 could use some changing in 1995.
CURWOOD: In the depths of the depression in 1933, Congress adopted a Federal Farm Program. And every 5 years or so since, the complex maze of subsidies, price supports and incentives has been readjusted. The program has boosted crops and kept food prices low for consumers. But critics say its benefits have come at a high cost to taxpayers and the environment. Prime examples: government subsidies for tobacco, which is hazardous to health. And sugar production, which often damages the environment. With Congress in a budget-cutting mood, many conservatives and environmental advocates alike say this year's farm bill ought to be able to save both money and the environment by cutting subsidies for harmful farming practices. But the farm program is deeply rooted in our political culture and thus difficult to change. I spoke with Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based think tank, about the politics and priorities of agricultural policy.
COOK: It's to help family farmers, provide income stability for them. It's to stabilize food supplies and food prices for consumers. It is also to conserve natural resources, particularly soil resources and water resources, to help farmers with conservation goals. And then really, finally, it's to help farmers who are making a transition out of agriculture.
CURWOOD: These seem like laudable goals. Would you agree?
COOK: They're very laudable goals. The problem has been in the implementation of the programs, the design of the programs. They've not really been very helpful in either respect.
CURWOOD: Let me get this clear. You think subsidies in general are a bad idea? Or we have simply misapplied subsidies to farmers in this country?
COOK: Well we have a problem with subsidies, because we think that they're still being driven by the objectives of 1933, and it's 1995. We really should be investing in a different set of things now in rural America. We should, I think, be investing in agriculture, but primarily in research and making agriculture more sustainable. I think we should target assistance not to those who own the most land but primarily to farmers who are in economic need.
CURWOOD: How would you change these programs to continue protecting the family farmer, to continue having a safety net, and yet make the reforms that you say need to be made?
COOK: One direction to go is to phase out all of the programs except the loans and cut out payments to the larger producers. Whether we're providing family-level assistance to family farms instead of corporate-level assistance to agribusinesses. With the savings we would get from that, we would have some capability, it seems to me, to invest in wetlands restoration, a very controversial issue in rural America now, and among environmentalists agriculture still accounts for most of the loss of wetlands in this country. Provide an incentive payment to restore that land and make an easement payment for the long term, to take the land out of production. We need to help farmers make an adjustment to cut back on their use of pesticides. Shifting money out of commodity programs and into conservation program, I think makes sense. In some cases, the same farmers would be getting the payments, but they'd be providing a different kind of service to society in return. They might be setting aside land for wildlife habitat. I think that there would in fact, instead of being criticism of current farm programs, this new sort of greener farm program would attract tremendous public support.
CURWOOD: Are there bills to do this on Capitol Hill right now?
COOK: Well, I would interpret the leading bill in this area as probably the one that was introduced a few weeks ago by Senator Lugar, who's Chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
CURWOOD: With his colleague from Vermont as well.
COOK: With his colleague, Democrat Pat Leahy from Vermont, who used to be the Chairman of the Committee. It maintains a very significant conservation component to the agricultural budget at a time when that budget overall is shrinking. And so you end up with, I think, a more up to date investment package that taxpayers, I think, will like.
CURWOOD: Are there the votes to pass this legislation in the Senate, in your view?
COOK: It's really hard to say. This, the farm programs make for really fascinating politics. You obviously have Senator Dole, not only the majority leader, not only from Kansas, but obviously running for the Presidency. For him farm programs are just vitally essential.
CURWOOD: Yeah, how much are wheat subsidies worth to the state of Kansas?
COOK: Well, we estimate that over the past 10 years alone we have probably provided upwards of $7 billion in direct payments to the state of Kansas. If you wanted to put that in perspective, if taxpayers had invested that money in Kansas farm land, we could have bought 37% of all farm land in the state of Kansas. We've got an early primary state in Iowa, so farm politics are presidential politics as they've rarely been in '96. That's going to be a big factor. So is, in the House, the simple fact that in many cases, when you look at the victories that the Republicans won in November, they were victories in rural districts, farm districts, that had been held by Democrats. Those changes House Republicans are trying to figure out what they can hold onto legislatively in terms of their priorities for cutting the budget and getting the government out of people's business. Those priorities run at odds with agriculture policy in these newly held Republican seats and so you have a real conflict in the Republican party. It's not clear which way they're going to go, and it's very much up in the air. The question is, is Congress going to be creative in this farm bill, or are they going to do business as usual?
CURWOOD: All right. I want to thank you for taking this time with us.
COOK: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Ken Cook is President of the Environmental Working Group in Washington, DC.
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